Fishing Community

St Andrews was a thriving fishing community in the 19th century, reaching its peak in the 1880s. During this time there were 57 fishing boats and about 200 fishermen compared to Anstruthers’ 221 boats and 573 fishermen. The fishermen spent 10 months of the year fishing for white fish and two months at the herring fishing. While the large boats were at the herring fishing in the North of Scotland, older men and boys were left in St Andrews to supply the burgh and surrounding countryside with fish and crabs.

The fisherwomen were important to the economic fortunes of the fishing community. Throughout the year, during warm summer days or bitter winters the women walked bare footed out the West Sands, bordering the St Andrews Links, to gather mussels free from the north and south sides of the Eden estuary. Sometimes the women were helped by men and children. The Eden mussels were carried back to St Andrews in creels on the women’s backs. Fisherwomen also worked hard in preparation for the fishing trips by baiting and redding the line and repairing the nets.

This thriving community lived at this end of North Street, traditionally known as ‘The Ladyhead’, with four families sharing the house that you stand in today. Down at the East harbour fisherfolk lived in a tenement known as the ‘Royal George’ – so called because of its close resemblance to a famous ship of the same name. Unlike other Scottish fisher homes, the Royal George did not have storage for fishing gear. In dry weather the fishing gear was left against the wall of the tenement but in wet weather the nets had to be kept dry inside the houses and were stored under the beds. Fisherfamilies tended to live in one or two rooms per family. Overcrowding and poor sanitation were commonplace and the work of mending nets and baiting lines was carried out outside the houses on the street.

Superstitions were quite a prominent part of the fisher folks’ lives, possibly due to the numerous dangers of their working lives – the idea of good or bad luck helped fisher folk to come to terms with the unpredictable nature of their occupation. Certain words, including ‘minister’, ‘kirk’, ‘rabbit’, ‘rat’, ‘salmon’, ‘pig’, and ‘salt’, were deemed unlucky and were replaced, so salmon became ‘redfish’, and pig became ‘himsel’. If fishermen encountered a Minister or someone with red hair en route to to the harbour they would more than likely not go to sea that day as it this was perceived as a bad omen.

Seagulls were considered to be bringers of good luck – fisher folk believed they were the souls of dead seamen. Horseshoes would be nailed to the mast of the boat for good luck, and sprigs of rowan would be tied to the lines to ward off the ‘evil eye’.

The mid-to-late 19th century was the heyday of the St Andrews fishing industry, with 200-300 boxes of fish exchanging hands daily in the harbour. At this time, the Ladyhead area was home to around 200 fisher families. The fisher community inhabited much of the east end of North Street down to Shorehead, and the house in which you are now standing is one of the few remaining fisherfolk dwellings. It was purchased by James Scott, a local architect, in 1937 who transformed it into a family home.

[Looking east down North Street]


This picture looks eastwards along North Street at the crossroads just before the Preservation Trust Museum. If you exit the museum and turn left along South Castle Street, you will be able to observe examples of traditional fisher houses with external staircases, as seen in many of the photographs on display.

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[Provost Hugh Lyon Playfair (1787-1861)]


In 1842, Major Hugh Lyon Playfair was elected chief magistrate of the Burgh of St Andrews. Samuel Lewis records in his 1846 publication, A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, that the Provost ‘displayed a warm interest in the moral and spiritual development of the labouring classes, especially the long-neglected fisher population’. However, responses to his proposed ‘improvements’ were mixed. What were they?

One notable voice of dissent regarding these improvements was George Bruce, who in 1884 published a damning essay in which he accused Playfair – or ‘Playfalse’ as he found more fitting to call him – of ulterior motives. It seemed to Bruce that the Provost was not motivated chiefly by a concern for the fisherfolk’s welfare, but by a desire to repress the less seemly elements of the town now that it was becoming a popular tourist destination.


[Dr John Adamson (1809-1870)]


Dr John Adamson here pictured, was a local surgeon and part-time lecturer in the Chemistry department of the University. Along with Provost Playfair and Adamson’s fellow medical practitioner, Oswald Home Bell, Adamson was instrumental in the sanitary reforms that would lead to the eventual relocation of the fisherfolk to the New Town.

Despite having a proper drainage system, the east end of North Street and the Ladyhead area were widely considered unsanitary. As Adamson observed: ‘it is inhabited to a greater extent by fishermen, whose habits render is highly offensive. It is covered with offal of every kind and upon the back of many of the houses there are dunghills filled with mussel shells [and] dung from pigs’.

He also noted that a ‘mild form of typhus’ was endemic to the Ladyhead area, and that there was an unusually high mortality rate within the fishing community as a result of their living conditions.

The fisher families lived not only on the edge of the town, but on the edge of society. From childhood through marriage and into old age, they interacted almost solely with those of their own trade. It was observed that fisher children did not play with other children, and often went uneducated. To the other townspeople, the fisherfolk appeared for the most part to be dirty, drunk and immoral. Indeed, the Reverend Charles Roger observed in his 1849 publication, History of St Andrews, that they lived mired in a ‘state of filth, misery and degradation’, and Adamson also recorded that ‘feasting and drinking’ was their ‘only enjoyment’.



This photograph is one of the oldest of North Street and shows the state of affairs in the midst of the sanitary reforms.

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‘No man can be a fisher and lack a wife’

[PIC: HAR 022 and/or HAR 034]

Adamson records that the fisherfolk were notably insular, and it was rare for a fisherman to marry out with the community as ‘few women not bred in the trade [were] fitted for the duties of a fish-wife’. These duties, indeed, were demanding and numerous. The fishwives were stalwarts for their mariner husbands, often quite literally carrying them on their backs to their boats as they waded through the shallows themselves in order to keep their husbands’ feet dry.

Although this net needle bag belonged to fisherman Alex Hill Gourlay (pictured, fourth from left), torn nets such as the ones on display would usually have been repaired by the fishwives. Women undertook the laborious tasks of repairing and baiting the nets and lines and gutting and ‘hawking’ the fish.

This selection of net needles, including an unusual ivory needle, would have been used by fishwives to repair nets and floats. The needle worked as a shuttle might in a loom.

Glass floats were first used in Norway circa 1844, and by the 1940s had almost entirely replaced the more perishable cork floats. The glass float you see here appears to be and earlier, hand-blown example, as evidenced by its irregular shape, sealing ‘button’ of melted glass and lack of seam.

The lines were baited with mussels gathered from the scalps of the Eden estuary – a good three miles away from the harbour – and whilst the fishermen would collect some of this bait in boats (as pictured above), the fishwives would gather much of it from the beaches themselves, making the journey on foot.

The fishermen’s right to gather bait from the Eden was eventually revoked by Provost Playfair in what would prove to be a controversial move. As George Bruce records, ‘Provost Playfair – or foul – induced the fishermen to sign a document […] agreeing to desist from taking mussels from Eden’, under a scheme whereby the town would take responsibility for gathering bait and would then sell it to the fishing communities. Under this new agreement, it was instructed that ‘the fishermen should ‘on no account interfere with the […] scalps without paying for such bait at the same rate as paid by any other purchasers’. Among the Provost’s reasoning for this reform was the observation that the bare legs of the mussel-gathering fisher girls would encourage ‘promiscuous’ behaviour!

The baiting and mending of the lines and nets was carried out in the open air, as this picture of North Street shows. By this time, Provost Playfair had instated bye-laws to prevent the obstruction of public thoroughfares with ‘ashes, dust, refuse, offal or mussel shells’, or with ‘bait, fish, fish creels, baskets, lines, nets or other fishing articles’. Whilst these measures undoubtedly improved sanitation in the area, they had dire consequences for the close-knit fishing community.


This sheeling knife was invaluable for opening up mussels for bait.

This hymn book , published in [check], belonged to a local fisherman. Whilst religious and superstitious behaviours were always key to the fisher community, the spiritual development of the fisherfolk was encouraged – and, some claimed, exploited – by Provost Playfair and his contemporaries in the form of weekly sermons and the distribution of tracts and short religious publications. The hope was that these might improve what Adamson described as the ‘moral cancer’ of these ‘reckless reprobates’. Curiously enough, ministers were thought to be unlucky by fisherman, many of whom would not set sail if they encountered one on the way to the harbour.


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By the early 1900s, the area was so overcrowded that entire families were forced to inhabit only one room.

[The back of the Royal George after the building of new toilets blocks]

Despite measures taken to sanitise the area surrounding the harbour – as evidenced here by the building of new toilet blocks behind the Royal George Building – the early 20th century saw an exodus of fisherfolk from the Ladyhead and Shorehead areas to new housing erected by the council on the far side of the Kinness Burn. Although these houses offered superior living standards to the relocated fisher families, the spirit of community that they had previously enjoyed was altogether shattered. Not only were the new builds inconveniently positioned for the harbour, but they also lacked any storage space for fishing equipment and provided no communal workspace as their previous dwelling had.

These social factors, combined with the advent of the steam trawler and declining cod, haddock and herring numbers around the bay, heralded the steady decline of the fishing industry in St Andrews. Today, the catch in the harbour is limited to creels of crab and lobster. Pittenweem, to the south, now remains the only Fife harbour with both regular fish market and a sizeable active fleet.